Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me
By Harvey Pekar and JT Waldman, with an epilogue written by Joyce Brabner. (Hill & Wang, 2012)
Harvey Pekar’s last book, from the era of his long career where he finally believed that his work—at least his longer works, his graphic novels—had to actually be about something.
Pekar was always very good at working his issues out in public. For a long time, those issues boiled down to two—his passion for music & comics and his disgruntlement at his dead-end job. He seldom even bothered to set these opposing forces against each other. We’d get excited rants about great records or flea-market finds, and then we’d get neatly numbing tales of the office grind.
The bigger books, however—Our Cancer Year, The Quitter and now this one (omitting the straight histories The Beats and Students for a Democratic Society, in which Pekar subdues his usual role as highly personalized narrative presence)—are about huge issues. This one is about the Israel/Palestine conflict. But Pekar, as is his manner, individualizes the heck out of it. He starts the chronicle with himself and illustrator Waldman visiting Zubal’s Bookstore.
“This is JT,” the cartoon Pekar says. “He’s working on a new book with me.”
“What’s it about?,” one of the Zubal brothers responds, and we’re off. Pekar recounts his childhood and his religious upbringing. His accustomed curmudgeonly attitude quickly comes to the fore. He freely admits a lack of knowledge in some areas and lets emotion and common sense guide him in others.
There are delineations of some of the Hebrew stories and histories which have led to the longrunning conflict, but mainly this is a book of what it’s like to bring up, among friends, a topic on which everyone has strong opinions. Pekar makes sure that the best articulated opinions here are his, but his knack as a writer is to include others.
Harvey Pekar was the pioneer of a type of realism in comics which wasn’t dependent on action or mythic themes. People in his scripts talked and often didn’t move. Even in his longer works, he sometimes strains (or chafes) at providing action. Visually, he underdramatizes. Verbally, however, he grounds dialogue in hard-held values of frustrated folks who just need to talk. His books are invigorating even when they’re visually stagnant.
That this book is about Israel is almost incidental to me as a longtime Harvey Pekar reader. I don’t agree with some of what he says, am intrigued by much of it, would suggest he craft the dialogue differently if he really wanted to change people’s minds. I certainly don’t share (or always appreciate) his permanently pissed-off demeanor. But I love the flow of his work, no matter whether he’s addressing a sticky filing cabinet drawer or the Holocaust. He’s in charge, but he’s generally very generous is allowing other viewpoints and faces into his books.
Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me ends with Harvey Pekar sitting alone in a library, raging as usual at some aspect of the world, this time tinged with a racial outburst. He’s stewing, though he’s obviously self-reflecting mightily. It’s a terrific coda to a magnificent literary career.